A year ago, Jehu Chesson was most commonly seen wide open, awaiting a pass that he would probably turn into a touchdown.
Chesson’s redshirt junior season underwent a second-half breakout that saw him climb into the conversation as one of the Big Ten’s best receivers and even threw his name into NFL draft consideration toward the end of last season. And then came the injury.
Playing against Florida in the Citrus Bowl, Chesson sustained a leg injury and had to go on crutches. He wasn’t medically cleared until just before fall camp, forcing him to miss out on nearly the entire offseason.
In the time since his return, he hasn’t made the same impact he did late in 2015. He has just two receiving touchdowns and is averaging 44.6 yards per game, a significant drop-off for a player who caught over 110 yards in three of Michigan’s last four games last season. But when asked about the drop-off on Tuesday, Chesson declined to blame the injury for his decreased production.
“I felt normal going into camp,” he said.
In the Wolverines’ 14-13 loss against Iowa on Saturday, Chesson was held in check for just two catches for 30 yards. On one crucial play late in the game, he appeared to have a chance to haul in a critical first down, but instead the ball was pulled away by Iowa’s Manny Rugamba.
The first down alone would not have been enough to give Michigan the win on its own, but it would have put the Wolverines in field-goal range with a full set of downs. Tuesday, Chesson took responsibility for the play.
“I let the guys down on that one,” he said. “Something I’ll learn from, and we just gotta keep pushing. Obviously you’ve gotta use your hands, regardless of where the ball is, the expectation is to make that play. We need that play so badly.”
One factor that could provide Chesson a spark is a potential change at quarterback. Multiple outlets reported Monday that Wilton Speight would miss the remainder of the regular season with a broken collarbone, though Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh denied those reports.
He did admit, though, that Speight was injured, so there is a possibility Michigan could switch to redshirt junior John O’Korn under center.
Speight seemed to develop a rapport with fifth-year senior receiver Amara Darboh, who became the quarterback’s go-to target on deep balls. But Chesson, who filled that role for Jake Rudock last season, is still very much a threat in the passing game. It’s possible he will find chemistry with O’Korn should Michigan call on the backup, which could signal an increase in targets for Chesson.
Against Maryland, Chesson played his most productive game of the season, pulling down five catches for 112 yards and a touchdown. After that performance, Harbaugh was quick to say there was no special mandate to target the fifth-year senior.
“It wasn’t a plan to feed Jehu, but it’s been a really interesting dynamic,” Harbaugh said. “I would say this. Here’s the greatest share of it, really, is I thought there were times last year where Jehu was playing great. Amara became the beneficiary of that in games last year, and then Amara would have a big game, so it’s probably no coincidence. Amara’s been doing some great things — last week had a big game, 11-catch game, over 100 yards — and then Jehu becomes the beneficiary of that.”
Now, though, with a new quarterback in the huddle, the target distribution could change once again. Chesson has long been expected to break through, and perhaps O’Korn could use his playmaking ability in the event Speight can’t go.
But, at least publicly, he says he won’t go into the game with any specific goal of upping his game to help O’Korn.
“Once you start thinking about it as playing up to something, then what were you doing when you weren’t playing up to that?” Chesson said. “I don’t personally have that mindset because I want to play at a level that I can be consistent, through and through.”